My Roommate Bob

Reflecting on the ethical and medical issues behind organ donation

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 - 12:22 PM

Listen to this morning's segment on organ donation here.

My college roommate died sadly and horribly in the fall of 2004. He had done something heroic and to my mind incomprehensible earlier that year when he donated a kidney to his sick nephew. My old friend Bob was in perfect health, in the prime of life. He loved to race cars, and was a Porsche fanatic. In school he had a Lancia Scorpion two-seater and an old BMW 2002. He was a world class car nut and his sense of risk was born out of taking 25 mile an hour street curves at 70 mph without hitting the brakes. He knew how to do a drift U turn without breaking a sweat. He was a brilliant physicist and could explain his driving excesses in calm momentum equations. Bob knew what was safe and what was not. So when he donated his kidney I couldn’t imagine anything going wrong.

He developed an infection due to a problem in surgery and died a slow death as doctors struggled to contain the out of control infection. Doctors would sustain him, the infection would consume him one organ at a time. There were amputations and surgeries as he struggled to win what turned out to be his last race. When he died his family had to pull the plug as Bob’s destroyed internal organs were not sufficient to carry on. It was a crazy horrible tragedy and yet his kidney lives on in his nephew who I will not name here — the family is sensitive to this story dominating their lives. They want it to end. They want to move on. I can understand that, of course, but I can’t help thinking about that organ of Bob’s alive in a boy growing up now. Bob’s ending… not an ending completely.

The contradiction goes to the center of the issue the family keeps uppermost in their minds. They feel the loss of Bob but honor the success of the transplant. The last thing they would want is for anyone to be hesitant about donating an organ based on Bob’s death. When I think about Bob living on there in that kidney, both abstract and real, I can hear him telling me. “Hey John, the stats on transplantation are clear, it’s safe, period.” Then Bob, in my dreams, hops into his Porsche and zooms away.

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